Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in March 1997. The show’s name suggested either camp or children’s programming, which was probably why the network had wanted to call it simply Slayer. But Whedon insisted on the full name, Pascale writes. “As he explained, each word was crucial to understanding the show: ‘One of them is funny, one is scary, one of them is action.’” It wasn’t the last time that Whedon would make a questionable marketing decision. To this day, plenty of people who correctly point to The Sopranos and The Wire as high points of turn-of-the-century television don’t realize that Buffy, despite its name, was one of the most impressive products of that impressive period, which is to say, one of the best TV shows ever made.
The show wasn’t simply about a superpowered high schooler whose calling was to fight demons and periodically save the world. It was an allegory for American adolescence. The monsters and apocalypses represented — seldom so obviously as to induce cringes — many of the problems that teenagers routinely confront, and they forced the heroine to face problems that the rest of us must face sometimes, too: unpopularity, abandonment, fear, misery, loneliness, helplessness. Sometimes Buffy prevailed through simple self-reliance; more often, through the help of her friends, a group of smart misfits who distinguished themselves from others in their high school — and simultaneously endeared themselves to viewers everywhere — by speaking a clever, grammar-mangling patois that fans soon dubbed Buffyspeak. (“Punishing yourself like this is pointless,” Buffy’s mentor tells her early in the show’s second season. “It’s entirely pointy,” she retorts.) The wit of the dialogue balanced the pain of the plots, as Whedon put his characters through the emotional wringer with a perceptiveness seldom matched on the small screen — or the big.
Buffy ended in 2003, but Whedon was already running other projects and would continue to pilot more, most of them in science fiction or fantasy. They included a number of TV shows (Angel, Dollhouse, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and movies (Serenity, The Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing), as well as an innovative, self-produced miniseries, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, distributed online. Deserving special mention is Firefly, a hugely promising TV series that mixed country-Western and sci-fi plots while showcasing Whedon’s trademarks: clever dialogue, perceptive psychology, and a motley crew of outsiders. The Fox network canceled Firefly after just 14 episodes, citing low viewership, which Pascale blames chiefly on Fox’s poor advertising for the show. Whedon may have deserved some of the blame, too. Firefly opened with a contemplative, almost dismal theme song, composed by Whedon himself, that captured the series’ spirit nicely but almost certainly put off many first-time viewers. Perhaps Whedon was once again insisting on artistic integrity at the price of practical success.
Until 2012, it seemed likely that Whedon’s name would be permanently associated with Buffy. That year, however, the best of the recent crop of comic-book flicks — The Avengers, written and directed by Whedon — became the third-highest-grossing movie of all time. Who better to helm a movie about a team of smart, squabbling mavericks who ultimately unite to save the world than the creator of Buffy and Firefly? The movie was classic Whedon: well paced, clever, and laced with dialogue at once witty and psychologically revealing. He’s currently working on a sequel, which will hit theaters this May.
Pascale’s book is carefully researched and documented, and it gives the reader a good idea of Whedon’s personality, thought process, and creative approach — no small feat for a narrative that, for the most part, must introduce its topics in chronological order. Pascale quotes Whedon often, and his insight about his own work makes the book a pleasure to read. After a conversation with composer Stephen Sondheim — who tells him, “I will always write about yearning” — Whedon starts wondering what his own chief motivation is. “Helplessness was what I realized was sort of the basic thing,” Whedon says. He varies the idea slightly in another context: “We, all of us, are alone in our own minds. … Loneliness and aloneness — which are different things — are very much, I would say, [among the] main things I focus on in my work.” Even The Avengers, Whedon says, is “a film about lonely people, because I’m making it, and my pony only does one trick.”